The Chief Rabbi of Tzfat, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, has issued a ruling stating that, “It is forbidden to discriminate in the matter of aliyot la’Torah [ascending to make the public blessings over the Torah reading in synagogue] due to sexual orientation.”
Rabbi Eliyahu’s response was issued following an inquiry posed by musician Daniel Zamir, who posted an account on his Facebook page of how he was refused an aliyah several months ago, due to his sexual orientation.
“On Shabbat morning, during the Shaharit prayers, I approached the gabbay [sexton] and asked for an aliyah,” Zamir wrote. “My grandmother passed away this year, and I am saying Kaddish for her, and wanted to go up to the Torah in her memory. In fact, this has been my custom already for many years, to go up to the Torah every Shabbat morning, but this time, to my surprise, the gabbay refused, mumbling that, ‘It’s all taken, [all the aliyot] are taken already.’
“The Torah reading began,” Zamir continued, “and I assumed that there must be a list of people who want aliyot – people in their year of mourning [for a close family member], people with a birthday that day – but no. I saw the gabbay looking around to find people to give aliyot to and he barely found any takers.”
Zamir decided to try his luck once more: “I approached the gabbay again and told him, ‘I’m prepared to pay for my aliyah – I’d be happy to. Just tell me how much.’ But he continued to refuse, repeating that ‘It’s all taken – it’s not possible.’ Of course I was hurt. But anyone who knows me knows that I’m a very shy person who is easily embarrassed, so I remained silent and didn’t make an issue about it, even though I was incredibly disappointed.
“After Shabbat, the gabbay contacted me, asking me to forgive him in case he had hurt my feelings, and explaining that he had simply wanted to avoid creating a scene in the synagogue, which would have hurt both me and the congregation. However, once I realized that the reason for his decision was my sexual orientation, I could not forgive him. I told him that I was going to summon him to the beit din [rabbinical court] for causing me distress and also to break my vow … But he didn’t reply.”
Zamir then decided to ask Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu for his opinion. “Rabbi Shmuel is a rabbi who is accepted as an authority by people from across the religious spectrum,” he explained. “He heard me out and was shocked at what had happened to me. He understood how much I had been hurt. And he sent me his response.”
In his reply to Zamir, Rabbi Eliyahu wrote: “I heard your question, and the answer is clear and self-explanatory. It is forbidden to discriminate against any Jew in the matter of aliyot la’Torah due to his sexual orientation. (Of course we are not talking about people who actually engage in behaviors that the Torah forbids.) Anyone who is struggling with such an inclination and is trying to live a holy life is of course eligible to receive an aliyah without any reservation.”
Without referring to Rabbi Eliyahu’s caveat (that his response was specifically directed to those who do not actually engage in acts forbidden by the Torah, and who are struggling to overcome homosexual urges), Zamir responded with great enthusiasm, writing: “This is historic! I think it must be the first time ever that an ultra-orthodox rabbi has ruled that it is forbidden to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Amazing. The first time that a rabbi from the [far-right] of the religious spectrum is taking a stand to protect LGBT rights – historic.”
Zamir added that, “In my eyes, this is a great kiddush Hashem [sanctification of G-d’s name]. Look what a beautiful Torah we have, what a beautiful tradition we have … I’m proud to belong to this tradition. Look how much tolerance, how much love…”